There's been an increasing focus on employee wellbeing in recent decades, and certainly since the global health crisis flipped the working world on its head in 2020. From supporting smoking cessation to office setups that encourage healthy living, policies set by companies now have a direct impact on employee health, wellbeing and habits outside the workplace.
But is expectation meeting reality in UK workplaces? Which industries are truly enabling positive employee health, wellbeing and lifestyle habits? Or is the gap widening between the companies supporting their employees and the ones that aren't?
To answer this, we surveyed over 1,000 employees, across the UK, for insight into their health status over the last year. We wanted to discover how the workplace impacts their health and wellbeing, and how UK companies can better support their workforce in this area.
The big picture from our data tells us that the majority of UK employees are have experienced stable or improving physical and mental health over the last year. The mental health of almost two-thirds (63%) stayed the same or changed for the better. Similarly, 67% of UK employees said their physical health over the last year had either improved or remained at the same level.
However, the data also highlights that there remains a significant portion of the population who are contending with worsening health. One in three (34%) UK employees state their mental health has become worse in the last year — compared to 19% who say it's better. When it comes to physical health, 31% state that it's deteriorated, whereas 22% have seen an improvement.
With large portions of the UK workforce suffering worsening health, employers must act early to help their staff.
There is a hidden mental health epidemic in the UK. Over the last year, employees here are twice as likely to have struggled with mental health as physical health issues (28% mental vs 13% physical).
Of those with mental health issues, 15% had problems due to work, while 11% experienced poor mental health because of pressures in their personal lives.
When asked about specific impacts in the last year, more than three-quarters of UK employees (79%) said they've experienced at least some decline in physical or mental health due to their work, including:
In the last year, female employees have disproportionately experienced work-related health implications. They're some four times more at risk of mental health issues due to pressures at home, suggesting a poor work/life balance among many women.
Whether the cause is home or work life, they're 54% more likely to suffer raised anxiety, 42% more susceptible to insomnia and 17% more at risk from excessive stress. Sore backs, shoulders or necks are 58% more probable in women than men, and other physical health concerns were 60% more likely in women.
Despite all this, female employees are twice as likely as men to work through health issues, rather than taking sick leave. By encouraging women to rest and recover properly when ill, companies can help to improve their health and prevent longer term illness.
It's an employer's duty to make sure the workplace doesn't affect their employees' health and wellbeing. Yet, a quarter of the employees we asked said their workplace had a negative impact on their health. 15% struggled with work-related mental health issues and 10% had experienced physical health problems as a result of work.
The impact of lifestyles and habits on employees' health, however, is another matter.
While the physical health implications of smoking are well known, smokers' mental health can also suffer. Almost a third (30%) of smokers in our survey had experienced periods of excessive stress due to work, 20% higher than non-smokers.
One in five workers experienced worsening mental health due to work, and these employees were twice as likely to increase their alcohol intake.
Employees who do at least 2.5 hours of exercise a week are less likely to experience negative physical or mental effects from being at work. The same applies to employees who don't sit for more than eight hours a day at work. By sitting for longer than eight hours, one in five UK employees are putting their health in the 'high' to 'very high' risk category.
Also known as presenteeism, working while unwell can lead to other health issues or prolong the existing condition. However, this survey reveals that over the last year, 17% of UK employees have worked while physically unwell. This number rises to 22% working while mentally unwell.
According to The British Psychological Society, this can:
With millions of UK employees suffering from deteriorating physical or mental health, what are the issues driving the decline that employers might be able to change?
Each mode of working has its own challenges. Those working in the office are twice as likely as homeworkers to miss out on regular 'microbreaks' or natural sunlight at their desk. They're also the most likely group to experience bullying or colleague discrimination.
People working from home, on the other hand, are most at risk of isolation. One in five of them spends more than eight hours a day sitting and/or looking at a screen, leading to the kind of sedentary lifestyle that can cause health problems.
Hybrid working seems to blend the worst of both approaches. Hybrid employees are the most likely to work outside of contracted hours and the most likely to spend more than eight hours a day sitting at their screens.
There are concerns over higher health risk factors in the capital, when compared to other UK regions. At some point over the last year, 93% of workers in the Greater London area have experienced a decline in either their physical or mental health.
Almost a third (32%) of London's employees have suffered from mental health issues in that time - more than anywhere else in the country. Plus, nearly a fifth (17%) of them say these issues are caused by work - more than twice as many who lay the blame on home or lifestyle pressures.
London's workers are more likely to be bullied or discriminated against than employees anywhere else in the UK: 12% in London said this was a problem they had.
Cost of living squeezes are also affecting London badly. The city has the second-highest proportion (21%) of employees skipping lunch and the second-highest percentage (18%) of people cancelling health-related memberships. At the same time, 1 in 10 London employees is a social smoker: more than any other UK region.
Almost a third (31%) of employees in Scotland have struggled with their mental health at some point over the last 12 months — double the number experiencing physical health issues. For both physical and mental health, three times as many Scottish workers said it had deteriorated as said it had improved.
One in eight employees with declining mental health highlighted work pressures as a key factor. Adding to the problem, Scotland has the highest level of presenteeism in the UK. More than a quarter of employees have worked while experiencing poor mental health, twice the number of any other region.
Companies in Scotland have the most to gain from supporting employees' physical and mental health.
Wales — Employees in Wales are the least likely UK workers to suffer mental health problems. Though a fifth (19%) still say they have struggled at some point over the last 12 months. However, employees in Wales are the most likely to work while on annual leave, with one fifth doing so.
Northern Ireland — Nearly a third (31%) of employees in Northern Ireland have experienced mental health problems in the last year. And along with Scotland, Northern Ireland is home to the loneliest employees: a quarter (25%) have expressed this feeling.
South East — Over 40% of people in the South East have suffered with increased anxiety in the last year - and a third have had to deal with excessive stress.
North West — A quarter of employers in the North West fail to look after employees' physical health, with a fifth ignoring mental health concerns.
West Midlands — On average, employees in the West Midlands are twice as likely to smoke regularly than workers elsewhere, posing unique health risks for people in the region.
East Midlands — Employees here are the least active in the UK, with only one in seven workers getting 2.5 hrs of exercise a week.
Our research finds that professional office workers are being driven into the ground by overwork, exposing the UK workforce to subtle yet serious damage to their physical and mental health.
However, the greatest impact on overall health has been seen in the routine and manual industries. Declining mental/physical health is twice as likely as improving health for employees in these industries.
Mental health remains a hidden problem across various UK employment sectors. In the following sectors, workers have reported poor mental health over the last 12 months, citing work pressures and working environments as the cause:
Sales, media and marketing
Retail, catering and leisure
Architecture, engineering and building
A huge majority of 85% want their company to be more proactive in boosting employee health, wellbeing and healthy habits.
A third (33%) believe training managers to provide better support is the answer. A similar proportion of workers (32%) see a need for promoting the use of sick leave when people are ill. While a quarter of employees want access to stress management training.
...and what benefits will this have for companies?
With many workers' physical health declining, quitting smoking is one way that people could make a real difference to their lives. This survey has also revealed that mental health problems are more common among smokers, with excessive, work-related stress 10% more prevalent in smokers.
The good news for smokers looking to kick the habit is that there's more help available than ever. The NHS has a wealth of information available, as well as free stop smoking services, which include one-to-one advice, group support and aids to help to quit. Many people now use vaping to help them quit smoking.
With so many people affected by mental health issues, it's also vital that people know where they can access mental health support.